From Bollinger Bolsheviks to Gaitskell's Frognal Set, the Suspicion of Well-Heeled Urban Radicals Has a Long History. Their Demonisation in the 1980s, along with the Celebration of Middle England, Obscured a Much More Significant Political Struggle

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New Labour doesn't care for them much. Peter Hain calls them the "dinner-party critics" and the MP Liam Byrne, in a recent Fabian Society paper, gives them the label "urban intellectuals", that pesky minority of anti-Iraq war obsessives who are so out of touch with the mood in the heartlands. For the media, they are the "chattering classes", a term that suggests a cadre of metropolitan, left-liberal professionals with nothing better to do than twitter on about the country's problems at posh dinner parties, detached from the realities of political power and the aspirations of ordinary people.

From Bollinger Bolsheviks to Hugh Gaitskell's "Frognal set", suspicion of well-heeled urban radicals has a long history. In the 1960s, Peter Simple's Daily Telegraph column began satirising the voguish left-wing causes of fictional Hampstead intellectuals such as Deirdre Dutt-Pauker, who fired off daily letters to the Guardian from Marxmount, her white mansion on the Heath. But even then Hampstead was becoming too expensive for young middle-class lefties and the caricature was already dated.

The "chattering classes" are the more specific by-product of the gentrification of other areas of London over the past few decades. The phrase was invented in the early 1980s by the right-wing journalist Frank Johnson and popularised by his friend Alan Watkins. It was meant to signify a certain type of middle-class urban pioneer who had moved into run-down parts of Islington and Camden in the 1960s and 1970s, but was now settling in areas further afield such as Hackney and Stoke Newington. Watkins maintained that "a teacher in Brynamman could still be a member of the chattering classes provided he or she could find a kindred soul with whom to chatter". As a media invention, though, the chattering classes have remained exclusively metropolitan, near to the centre of power without being part of it. It has taken devolution, for example, to create an alternative myth of a Scottish chattering class around Kirsty Wark's social circle in Glasgow's West End.

Johnson and Watkins identified a coalescence of lifestyle and political values among these gentrifiers. They developed their own distinctive styles of interior design, cuisine and networking as a way of making sense of their decision to move to down-at-heel areas and of shoring up the value of their houses. The adjective "chattering" derives from the favoured social gathering of the gentrifiers: the dinner party. One of the first acts in the middle-class refurbishment of dilapidated Georgian properties was to knock through the dividing walls downstairs, so that the kitchen became the main eating area as well as the social hub of the home. The esprit de corps that developed among the gentrifiers fostered new kinds of neighbourliness. The urban middle classes had "a few friends round for a meal" rather than a formal dinner party with several courses.


Because these urban pioneers were often members of the cultural professions--writers, journalists, academics and television producers--gentrification itself became a topic to chatter about in the media. Many of the gentrifiers were left-wing, which partly explained their willingness to settle in poorer areas, but also made them worry about pricing locals out of the housing market. They used their influence as opinion-formers to comment on the process with a mix of guilt and self-satire. In his 1966 TV sketch show On the Margin, Alan Bennett, a Camden resident, incorporated a quasi-soap opera called "Streets Ahead: life and times in NW1". Its characters were achingly trendy left-wing couples--Joanna and Simon Stringalong, and Nigel and Jane Knocker-Threw--whose lives consisted of a series of self-generated ethical dilemmas, such as whether to send their children to private school, and what to do when their Swedish au pair became pregnant. They always resolved their quandaries with a tortuous blend of moral posturing and self-justification. …